It happened two miles from where I lived.
It happened one mile from my older daughter Danielle’s school.
It happened across the street from my old theatre company’s office.
It literally happened in my backyard.
I was at the gym when the first plane hit, watching the surreal tragedy unfold on TV. When the second plane hit, I ran home to change my clothes. During that time, my wife and I watched the first tower fall on TV.
Then I ran outside.
There were no subways.
Buses and taxis were full of police and emergency personnel.
So I ran to Danielle’s school.
The kids were safe, although one of Danielle’s classmates, a lovely gentle boy from India, had a sister at an honors high school no more than 100 yards from the towers. When his mother arrived at Danielle’s school, she fainted dead away on the front steps. It was hours until her daughter was located safe and sound. One can only imagine her agony.
Three of my friends ran for their lives as the buildings came crashing down. Another friend who worked in the Windows of the World restaurant at the top of Tower One perished.
My best friend called me, his voice shaking, as he recounted watching people jump to their deaths rather than endure the engulfing flames within the buildings.
I walked Danielle home amongst thousands of others, all of us in silence. As we trudged uptown, F-15’s and Apache helicopters buzzed the skies. Fire trucks and police cars zoomed down the deserted avenues.
For weeks the smoke lingered in the sky over where the towers had stood, wafting in all directions. An elderly man who apparently had experience of such things told me that the air smelled of burning flesh.
We were all afraid. We didn’t know what to do. But through the fear and confusion, the devastation and loss, something amazing happened in my hometown. People became extraordinarily kind to one another.
Grieving wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and children were comforted during candlelight vigils by complete strangers. People walking the streets holding up photos of loved ones, crying in desperation, “Have you seen this person?” found themselves encircled by dozens of loving arms.
It was a change that can only be described as spiritual – not spiritual in the sense of what you learn from a book, or in a classroom, but spiritual in the sense of something that comes from a place deep in the human heart.
I remember within days little memorials composed of candles, flowers and photographs sprung up all over town: on street corners, by lamp posts, on top of newspaper dispensers; they were everywhere. Now, as much as I love New York, I have to tell you it is not a place you want to leave stuff lying around. But I walked by the same little shrines day after day, week after week, and they were left untouched. It finally occurred to me that they were, quite simply, holy. As holy as an alter of Christ, a Kamiza in a Buddhist temple, or the Ark of the Covenant, and no one dared disturb them. If at the end of the day, God is love, then I saw God all around me in the face of unspeakable horror.
In time, the familiar bustle of the city returned – cabs honked at double-parked trucks, and waitresses in diners and delis turned grouchy once again. It was New York’s way of saying, “We will go on with our lives,” or, to use a bit of Yiddish, “Kiss my tuchus.”
The reason New York is, and always will be, the greatest city in the world is because of the character and grace we New Yorkers demonstrated during 9/11. It reminds us what is best and most noble about the human spirit: our ability to call up seemingly boundless reserves of love and compassion when those around us need it most.